Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Psychic space

I don't remember how old I was when I met Jesse--I think eleven or twelve. Her name was Jessica then; so was mine. We were pen pals first, and the reason we met was that we had the same name, both first and last. She was on the pen pal list in New Moon magazine, and I wrote to her because I thought it was so cool that our names were the same, even if the last names were spelled differently.

Jesse is the reason that I go by Jess now instead of Jessica as I did when I was younger. I remember having a serious discussion about it on the phone, probably before we had ever even met in person, and deciding that we each needed a nickname. She became Jessie and I was Jess. And we've both stayed that way, although she has long since dropped the I from her name.

We lived on the east coast but far apart, me in North Carolina and her much further north. The first time we met was at age 13, in 1997. My parents drove me to visit her and then she came down to visit me. The next summer, I went with her for a couple weeks on her annual family trip to Maine.

I went there with her more than once, and those trips blend together in my mind now. Jesse's extended family had a cottage right on the water, with only a field between the house and the ocean. The next door cottage also belonged to Jesse's family, I think, and the house on the other side was owned by people with dogs, one of which was a black lab/Newfoundland mix named Casey that I absolutely loved.

The annual trip wasn't just a vacation, or a family reunion--it was a time for the family to work on restoring the cottage, which was about 100 years old. Although I didn't understand that at the time, or at least it wasn't really clear in my head. The extended family was vast--assorted third cousins and whatnot, and the kids often brought friends. The fact that a lot of these people were barely even related was astounding to me--I know no members of my family more distant than first cousins or great-aunts.

My memory of that first summer involves me cutting Jesse's hair really short at her request, my own hair being dyed an eggplant colour, and lots and lots of card games. We spent a lot of time sitting at the dining room table by the screen door, playing Pounce or Michigan and listening to music from my Discman on the $10 purple speakers I had bought at Wal-Mart. Casey would push through the screen door and we would pet her. Almost everything happened in that dining room, or on the porch.

It was confusingly beautiful to me that I had even wound up in this amazing cottage with this jumbled family in such a gorgeous, remote-feeling place. I was happy there, and relaxed; I was loud and I laughed a lot, and I teased Jesse's uncles and sang off-key and crowed when I won Hearts at night when the whole family played. Sometimes when I woke up in the morning I would go out on the balcony by myself and feel like I was in a movie because everything was so perfect. Jesse and I were together pretty much all the time. We spent time out in the field, down by the dock, canoeing with her cousin, looking in the seaweed for crabs.

It seemed like such a weird thing, that I had noticed this girl's name in a magazine, that we had been pen pals, that we had met up, that we had hit it off so well, that we had become best friends, that we had wound up in this gorgeous place together. And lucky. Jesse was--and is--amazing, intelligent, determined, creative, lovely. We were very different but we were very good best friends. We grew apart later in high school, but we still vaguely keep in touch through Facebook. She is someone I would hate to lose entirely. She is someone I'm lucky to ever have found.

By the time the trip ended, we were already making plans for the next year. It wasn't until I was in North Carolina that Jesse called, furious, because her aunt had sent an email to her father. About me, saying that much as I was a lovely, gregarious person, it was difficult to have me with the family in Maine because I took up too much "psychic space." And that Jesse was totally different when I was there, and that I took up valuable time that the family got to spend with their Jesse. And that she, the aunt, would prefer that I not be invited back the following year.

I cried. Jesse cried. We hung up the phone. Jesse pitched a fit to her father, said that if I couldn't come back to Maine, she wouldn't be going back either. I went sobbing to my mother about all the things that Jesse's aunt had said about me. That term she used, "psychic space," still sticks in my mind. Now that I'm older, I see her point. I was loud, I was boisterous. Jesse was most certainly different around me as most teenagers are different around their various friends. I had no respect for the fact that the family was trying to restore their house--though, to be fair, I didn't realize or understand that at the time. But yes, I changed the dynamic of their family vacation, their one time per year when they got to be together in a way that was familiar and enjoyable.

I try to imagine what it was like for my parents in that situation--what I would do if my 14-year-old daughter came to me crying because someone had told her that she wasn't quiet enough, that she was too loud and that she ruined other people's vacations with her intense personality. Especially, I try to imagine what it would be like if the person who said those things to my daughter was an adult, the family member of a close friend, a person of respect and authority. I would want my daughter to be like that, lively and self-assured and unafraid of asserting herself. I would be worried that criticisms like that, from an adult, at a tentative time and age, would have a lasting effect. But I would also want her to learn about appropriate timing for expressing herself, and being aware of her impact on those around her.

Jesse's father, extremely diplomatic, ended up brokering a deal with the aunt wherein I came back the next year, but Jesse and I stayed in the other cottage next door. It was still fun. But it wasn't the same. I only went back one more year after that. I have no idea if Jesse ever goes there now. Or her aunt.

Anyway, I scanned in some pictures. I wrote to Jesse and asked if she minded if I posted pictures of her at age 14, but I haven't heard back, so I blurred out her face. If she writes back and says it's okay, I'll exchange the blurry pics for the real ones. UPDATE: Permission has been received in the form of a very sweet e-mail. Blurry pics have been replaced.


  1. I don't think any parent wants to hear negative comments pertaining to their children's personality whether from an adult or another child, stranger or someone they know. I think that would make any parent hurt for their child, whether the child had actually heard the comments or not.

    Quite honestly...if I had been Jesse's parent, I probably would not have shared the complete details of the aunt's comments with her. That was an adult exchange, and he had to know she would tell her friend about it.

    The pictures are cute...You really haven't changed much, have you? :)

  2. How cool that you have a pen pal that you still keep in touch with.

    Sorry you had to deal with that crap about your "psychic energy". I'm with 3carnations, I don't think they should have shared that with her. You were just a kid.

    I want a cottage!

  3. Your relationship has weathered much, and still endures.

    i agree with 3carnations and Tessie. However, I my first thought about the aunt was she seemed threatened that you weren't timid, quiet, or being a "good girl" and perhaps it was self assertiveness in her niece that was different? That might have been what freaked her out? It is one thing to say that you'd prefer some dedicated time just to family and another thing to say someone who is not quiet takes up too much psychic space.

  4. I never had a pen pal growing up. I think this is a great story of long distance friends. Maybe as time passes you will cross each other's paths more often again.

  5. such a sweet post. i had a pen pal that lived in Egypt but for obvious reasons we never met up. it's really neat to how good of friends the two of you became through that.

  6. 3carnations--Yeah, I understand that perspective. Her dad was always about openness and sharing with her, and I guess sometimes that could open her or her friends up to hurtful things. But she turned out pretty well, so I'm not filing any complaints.

    Tessie--Yeah, I had tons of pen pals when I was younger and she's the only one that a) I ever met in person and b) that I'm still in touch with in the slightest. And I want a cottage too.

    Artemisia--Yeah, I wonder that stuff about the aunt too, and I agree with the distinction you made. But I have such a limited and biased understanding of her that I refrained from attempting to analyze her behavior. I actually went back and deleted some less-than-charitable sentences from this post before I published it.

    Elysa--Pen pals were great when I was little and I hope my kids will have them as well, even if it comes in the form of preteen websites or something.

    Michelle--Yeah, it is pretty neat, huh? Too bad you never got to meet your pen pal. What a good excuse that would have been to get to take a trip to Egypt.

  7. My best friend's family took me on a number of vacations over the years - and I don't think I've ever paused to realize, in adult life, how generous that was, to share their family time with me like that.